I will probably upset many people with this post but I think that it is time to speak up.

I have enjoyed my martial arts training and have benefited greatly from it. I have grown personally and professionally. I have also had the awesome opportunity to work with the wonderful people who have been and are my students. I plan to continue for a LONG time as there is a lot yet to learn.

Now, on to the topic…
If you have a Black Belt rank in a martial art, you do NOT have a degree. The term “Dan” means step, not degree. It is intended to illustrate that you have taken the step toward becoming a serious student. The term used for a 1st Dan rank is Shodan (Japanese) or Chodan (Korean) and they mean “First Step”.

Now this is an important item because the schools that use “college” or “university” in their names actually aren’t academic institutions. What this means is that they have adopted those words as part of their names but are not recognized by an office of higher education. While I may have missed one, the only institutions that are recognized as being able to grant academic degrees are Minnesota International University, Bridgeport University and Amerstate University. “Degrees” from any other martial arts college or university means that your have earned rank with them, period.

For example, the state of Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education states
“Degree-Granting Institutional Registration is required for most postsecondary institutions that are:
** private institutions or
** out-of-state public institutions or
** grant degrees exclusively at the associate level or above or
** use the terms “academy,” “college,” “institute,” or “university” in their names.”

In addition, they must meet the minimum requirements for credit offerings with 120 credit hours for a Bachelor’s degree. Among those credits are courses in a variety of educational fields including humanities and sciences.

I have checked on several of these martial arts colleges and universities as part of my desire to move past the fitness stigma that has developed. I had hoped to find one that was “real” but only found schools using the term as a marketing point. These may be quality schools but they are not academics. I had really hoped there was one because I had no idea how to create one nor did I want to re-invent the wheel.

Why do I think this is important?
1) It is because the martial arts is viewed as nothing more than a portion of the fitness industry. The is evident in the job postings found (like this one from Lifetime Fitness) that require only a high school diploma/ GED and 6-12 months experience. This is also seen in how many martial arts schools have Zumba or kettlebell or cardio-kickboxing classes to fill hours with paying students.
2) Then again, the sport attitude of many commercial schools dilute the true benefits of the martial arts. This has schools selling the benefits of training by presenting how many tournaments they’ve competed in and how many trophies they’ve won. This version seems to lean toward selling contracts.

That’s enough for this time. I won’t start on wondering why schools rarely list who they trained with and who awarded their ranks. You’d figure if they had earned university degree, they’d have it posted to help establish their credibility.

Author: Master Robert Frankovich

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11 thoughts to “Black Belt Degree Myth

  • Master Gary Mattevi

    Master Frankovich,

    I think you make a valid point in calling into question the credential s of instructors, dojos, and dojangs. Where do we get the authority to grant rank to our students? We have both seen training centers abuse their authority in the way they promote or not promote their students. You have been around long enough to know of some instructors who have advanced their own rank. For that matter, there have been too many so-called colleges offering degrees without having to do course work or fulfill any academic requirements; just pay a fee and receive a degree.
    The authority or right to grant rank is inherent in the position of being an instructor or being part of an association that establishes standards and procedures for rank advancement. However, if you decided to create your own eclectic martial arts style, what rank would you give yourself? Following the traditional of many styles you would most likely promote yourself to tenth dan and don the title of soke. Would that be legitimate? Nevertheless, that soke would be recognized as the head of that system or family and the rank given by that person would only be questioned by those outside the family. Those within the family would hold the soke in high esteem and proudly receive his or her promotion.

    When I test my students, as their teacher, I know how they are developing better than anyone. When I give them rank, they have earned it by proving to me and themselves that they have grown to a higher level of skill and character development. No one judging their side kick or a form can determine if they should be promoted better than me. When I test and promote a student to first dan black belt, there is no confusion that this may somehow be equivalent to a bachelor’s degree from a college.

    As you know, I use the word “academy” in the name of my martial arts school. The dictionary defines an academy as “a school that provides training in special subjects or skills” (Merriam-Webster Online). I don’t think I have ever had a student expect to receive an academic degree when they have been promoted to second dan black belt. In the same way, the word “degree” means “any of a series of steps or stages, as in a process or course of action; a point in any scale” (Dictionary.com). The word “academy” aptly applies to what I offer at my school and the word “degree” only refers to a stage of development achieved by a serious student of a martial artist.

    I certainly agree with you that any training center using the word “college” or “university” in its name and confers seemingly academic degrees onto their students should be viewed with some skepticism. I value academic pursuits (I have done several of my own) and can envision a college that would develop curriculum and instruction leading to an academic degree in martial arts education, business, or philosophy.
    I have heard your musings on martial arts academia before and I think you are onto something. Maybe it’s time that you put a plan together and get something started. I’m guessing you already have the plan.

    Thanks for bringing another interesting topic to the table and thank you for doing your part to call martial artists to preserve the integrity and honor of our way of life.

    Take care, my friend! I hope our paths cross again on one of my trips to Minnesota.

  • Andrew Chiu

    The penchant for self glorification and bombast in our popular culture is antithetical to the traditional spirit of martial arts. Unfortunately, the practice of martial arts in North America has been negatively influenced by some of these tendencies. The over reaching nomenclature discussed above may be emblematic of this mentality. Accomplishment of physical feats and pursuit of victory in contests are illusory pursuits and are of lesser value compared to the shaping of character. How many students know what the seven pleats on the hakama signify or can name and define the seven cardinal virtues of bushido? And yet, much is made of the wearing of a black belt. Paradoxically, both too much and not enough is made of this status. Thank you Masters for your wisdom and teaching. 谢谢您!

    • Tom

      @Andrew. Outstanding. Beautiful explanation.

  • Lucas Kastelijn

    What’s in a name ? Whether you call it Shodan, Chodan , Toan ot whatever…the belt around your waist is primarily meant to keep your Gi-Suit-Uniform together / closed. Some martial arts ( what is exactly an art ?) didn’t and still don’t need a belt, simply because they wear no Gi-Suit-Gi-Uniform but plain clothes, just easy to wear. ( e.g.Pencak-Silat, Krav Maga, MMA….) To compare the black Belt with an official Degree , educational wise..) Is a semantic discussion….When a martial artist tells me that he/she has a Black Belt I never expect them to be automatically Higher educated. I don’t even care or ask but I will respect them for being well trained up to a certain level, the Back Belt. And we all have experienced what that means !!!

  • Dr. Alex Sternberg


    What an interesting discussion about karate rank and academic “degrees”.Does anyone really claim that their Dan rank of whatever level is the same as a bachelors, masters or doctoral degree? Nonsense! Academic degrees may only be conferred by institutions recognized by State Education Authorities that meet rigorous standards. Among them is recognition by accreditation agencies such as Middle States, as an institution of higher learning. Yes, as sensei Frankowich correctly states, you need 126 credits which include, english, math, music, political science etc.etc.

    Why is it, that we in the martial arts, never developed such an institution?
    1- It costs a fortune to make something like that a reality
    2- Who would attend? who needs a masters degree in karate? Where do you get a job with such a degree?
    If you want to be employed teaching karate in a college, better get a Phys-Ed degree and you can teach tennis, basketball, karate or any sport.

    Not only is the rank we have received or give to our students not recognized by any ‘legitimate’ higher level academic institution, but we ourselves do not recognize most karate dans issued by groups other than our own.
    Do we have a national certification program that all karate organizations belong to? A group who’s recognition conveys universal acceptance among all martial artis? A certification without which,
    one MAY NOT TEACH?
    That has to be the first step toward recognition by others. We need to recognize ourselves.

    Unfortunately, we are super disorganized. Although many of us have trained for 20,30, and 40 years or more and have acquired a serious amount of knowledge, only we in the karate community understand what it means.
    Sensei, shihan, soke, kaisho, grand pubba. Is it any wonder if the academic people scratch their heads? BA/BS, MA/MS, PhD, MD, ScD are degrees everyone understands and recognizes

    I have earned a 7th dan in Shotokan (JKA) karate and I am very proud of it.
    But, I also went to university to earn masters and doctorate degrees in exercise physiology and sports science as well as masters in public health and hopefully next month, a doctorate in Public Health.
    We must learn to communicate in the same language with academic people, if we expect to be on the same playing field. That language, is legitimate degrees!

    • Robert Frankovich

      Dr. Sternberg,
      The way around the teachers for the degree program is to be recognized as a community expert with knowledge beyond the level that will be taught in the university courses. For Minnesota, to teach the upper level courses, the teacher must have a Master’s degree but the field of study isn’t limited to the field that will be taught.

      Amerstate University is currently offering Master’s degrees in Taekwondo with admission requirements of a Bachelor’s degree in any field and at least a certified rank of 4th Dan.

      Personally, I believe that we can get past the political issues, if 1) the person running the university program is open minded, and 2) the student is open minded. There can be a lot of latitude in completing the coursework, if students are willing to do the work. At least this is the stance I’m taking as I try to grow the Minnesota International University program.

    • Dr. Alex Sternberg

      The problem with our industry is, that although most instructors are excellent and legitimate, they are still not in favor of having a National Certifying Board overseeing their diplomas and credentials and the curriculum they are teaching. Why is this? The vast majority of instructors in the US would have no problem to have their credetials and the curriculum they teach pass such a board. We would have the added respect that comes with the statement “Certified by tha USA National Black Belt Dan Registry” and whatever added information on such a board. This should not be viewed with fear, but rather with excitement as it will help our industry.

  • Brandon

    These are some very interesting points, although I don’t really agree with your conclusions on the use of the word degree. Personally I’ve always thought of degree, within the context of the martial arts in terms of change, proficiency, or experience.

    “The amount, level, or extent to which something happens or is present.” – a search result for define degree in Google. The same result also lists: level, standard, grade, mark as synonyms for it.

    You make a good point about trying to use the term in the context of trying to equate martial competency to an academic proficiency. But within the context of the martial arts the term is, as it seems to me a perfectly good adaptation of eastern terms to western terms.

    For those of us who prefer teaching and conducting classes with english terminology, the term degree makes far more sense than the direct translation of step and given then example definition above it’s also not misleading.

    Yes, someone could use it in an attempt to be misleading but that’s simply a fact of life.

    • wyattcpa@aol.com

      Every style develops as a result of training and development. Years ago we tried to train and develop in our particular style. Development and promotion was the result of thousands of hours of trainiing, testing, and accomplishment. The next level was considered a promotion, Please advise how you describe level of promotion. No style should have any disagreement as to wherher you describe your student or professional levels of development as one term or another. What I see missing is the thousands of hours of traing and thousands of sparring matches to move from one level to the next. Please explain what you are substituting for the degree term we used over 35 years ago.
      I stand down and thanks.

      • Master Robert Frankovich

        Truthfully, I don’t care if the term “degree” is used. It was purely that a discussion made me think he believed his Dan rank “degree” equated to an academic degree. My intent was to get people thinking about the degree program at Minnesota International University that has a martial arts specialization. I do thank you very much for being willing to chime in on this!

  • Sifu Shane

    Logically sound. I find that those who are guilty of this fallacy are more often first dan students, as opposed to more advanced students. As my first sifu said ( very frequently, almost redundantly) ” a black belt is only a student who recently learned how to learn”.

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